By Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service | May 2, 2015
BOZEMAN, Mont. – Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests, and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State University and North Dakota State University faculty members.
The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term U.S. Department of Agriculture research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences who is part of the research team.
Miller said that in a typical organic farming system, tillage is used to terminate cover crops and to get rid of unwanted weeds. However, frequent mechanical tilling can disrupt soil structure and reduce organic matter, ultimately harming the success and growth of future crops and costing farmers money.
“There’s one major downfall in organic farming – and that’s soil erosion, which is related directly to tillage,” Miller said. “This project targets that vulnerability. We’ve designed a system that lets us engage grazing to reduce tillage by more than half.”
Instead of using traditional tilling machinery, Miller said the project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms.
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